by Michael Wilson BecerrilOctober 18, 2022
Amid the horror and uncertainty of war, concerned world citizens flock to the media. We cling to our screens, apps, papers, and radios to make sense of astonishing tragedies, to know how to respond, and for reassurance that things will be under control soon. In such moments, it is vital that we not suspend our critical assessment of the stories we are sold.
As I’ve been emphasizing to my university students since the Russian government began its full-scale, unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine: notice the narratives. What viewpoints get pushed and re-emphasized in your area’s dominant news outlets? Which ones are quickly cast aside, and what other perspectives are ignored altogether? As the war rages, more than half a year later, we must take stock of the recurrent narratives that have dominated the discussion of how the world should respond—as well as the impacts of those narratives.
Even more importantly, we must use our respective capacities, human agency, and power in numbers to hold media producers accountable for their editorial choice of highlighting violence while ignoring nonviolent resistance (my companion post here focuses on this).
In the U.S., where corporate channels hardly elicit audiences’ sympathy with the victims of wars in the global South, dominant media narratives of the war openly or inadvertently advance the idea that military support to Ukrainian resistance is necessary. Among others, these have manifested as anchors and military commentators stressing the need for a “reinvigorated Europe”, portraying military transfers as humanitarian solidarity with Ukraine, or recycling old tropes about “defending democracy” from undisciplined states.
One of my students noticed an early, curious narrative that Russia’s plan was “a failure” almost immediately after it began. As we discussed in our classroom, how could so many observers be sure that it is failing if it only just started?
Whether intentionally or unwittingly, the emphasis on Russia’s incompetence has real consequences. One effect is that it primes us to think that fighting back would be easy and winnable. It subtly encourages us to focus solely on the path of full-scale war, to the detriment of other possibilities such as supporting grassroots nonviolent resistance to war and occupation. Such resistance has been happening in many parts of Russia, Ukraine, and beyond, despite the predominance of violence in the conflict.
Notwithstanding their right to self-defense, Ukrainians’ common demand for NATO intervention has been endlessly aired in dominant media here in the U.S., but Ukrainians with dissenting views are seldom featured. On the contrary, coverage of anti-war protests in Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and elsewhere gets neatly spun into support for spending billions of dollars on arms transfers. (This is an important reminder about communication to anti-war protesters: if you're protesting a militaristic response to the invasion, it's important to be more specific than just, "No to war in Ukraine".) U.S. corporate media have even successfully reframed the West’s dependence on fossil fuels and Ukrainian people’s suffering as a justification for expanding fossil fuel production to record heights—in the name of peace and security.
Meanwhile, the remaining prospects for diplomacy and de-escalation are neglected altogether or, occasionally, glossed over as important but unrealistic. Initiatives that are designed to support nonviolent civil resistance movements—one of the most powerful forces against authoritarianism worldwide—rarely make the news. Censorship of peaceful avenues to resist the invasion is much more subtle than outright concealment: it is not only in avoiding the conversation, but also in discarding it.
Corporate news outlets are failing to cover nonviolent resistance to Western militarism as a response to Russian aggression in Ukraine. Yet there are alternatives out there that Putin would not be happy to be confronted with, i.e. nonviolent actions targeting and weakening his pillars of support. In my companion post, I highlight a handful of news outlets that are amplifying these actions (and anti-war perspectives more broadly). I also provide some ideas of collective action to challenge militaristic media narratives.
Michael Wilson Becerril (he/él) is an activist scholar with more than ten years of experience working for social and environmental justice. His written work has appeared in the Journal of Resistance Studies, Feminist Review, Terrorism & Political Violence, Peace Review, Human Rights Review, The Washington Post, Al Jazeera, the Environmental Justice Atlas, and Latino Rebels.Read More